I’ve been thinkin’... It seems to me that the dog food aisle has been getting bigger and prettier over the last few years but the more I look, the more I see packages of the same old ingredients sporting a fresh new look. Marketing firms spend tons of money to make sure they have the right combination of colours and buzz words to get our attention. I know, I know. They have guidelines they have to adhere to; lest the Industry Canada police give them a slap on the wrist, but I feel as though there is something wrong with the system. Join me as I go through our thought process, what we found out and what we feel are the best dog food options for our pup. This is by no means a scientific study paper but I do hope that you find enough information here to guide you in whatever direction you may choose.As most people in this beautiful country, we fed our first dog with commercial dry dog food. Who can blame us really, we didn’t know any better and had been sold on the premise that dogs eat dog food. Over a span of fourteen years, Shrek, our golden retriever/black lab mix struggled with food allergies, stomach issues, indigestion issues, you name it. We tried the inexpensive food, the expensive food, the special diet and even the vet diet but there was always something awry. Shrek finally passed away in 2014 from what the emergency vet called a splenic tumor. His spleen had gotten very enlarged and could have ruptured at any moment. He was in a lot of pain and my wife and I had to make a very difficult decision. We never found out if it was cancerous because at that moment, we didn’t really see the point. However, in doing research before getting another dog we found some really interesting things. There are some recent studies that link cancer in dogs with the consumption of aflatoxins found in some improperly stored commercial dog foods. Aflatoxin is generated from mold contaminated grains such as corn, rice and wheat and from nuts and legumes. These ingredients, which often make up a majority of dry dog food develop mold from poor growing conditions and/or from being put in less than ideal storage for very long periods of time. This piece of information scared the hell out of us. Thoughts started running in our minds that we had inadvertently killed Shrek with the food we were feeding him. Now, I am aware that he was fourteen when he passed and that is a considerable age for a large dog but you have to understand that there was no other age related issues with him. He was still a very energetic, present minded dog. Nonetheless, it prompted our search for a better alternative.
Between my wife and I, we must have read hundreds of blog articles, government websites, books and magazine articles; all of which have different approaches and perspectives. What we did see however, is that there is mainly three lines of thought and all agree on one thing; dogs need a few things to thrive. They need water, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. How much of each depends on breed, size, life stage and activity level. That being said, the first and most popular line of thought is obviously the commercial dog food. Whether it comes dry in a bag or wet in a can this is the food that is kind of regulated by Industry Canada and by the Pet Food Association of Canada (PFAC). This type of food does have some advantages, it is convenient, easily accessible and depending on the brand relatively inexpensive. On the other hand, it also has a few disadvantages which include very confusing labels, a never-ending assortment of brands and, depending on the brand, very expensive. If you decide to go with this option, I recommend you do some research. There are a ton of articles out there but one website I have found particularly helpful in understanding exactly what is in these commercial dog foods is www.peteducation.com, they have an article that was written by Veterinary Drs. Foster and Smith called Dog Food Labels: How to Read Them that is very clear and easy to understand.
The second and probably most controversial is the BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) diet. This basically entails feeding your dog raw meat and bones, eggs, fruits and veggies as well as some dairy such as yogurt. The premise is that before dogs were domesticated, they would have fed on theses types of foods and that is probably accurate. The potential problem with it however is that if you are not very careful with how and what you feed your pet, you could endanger his/her life as well as yours simply from bacteria in the raw meat. The fact is, your dog could probably thrive on a barf diet but you have to make sure the meat you buy is specifically sourced for that purpose. The meat you find at your local grocery store was meant to be cooked and could carry the type of bacteria that would hurt you and your pet. Something else to consider when you make your own dog food is nutritional balance. If all you give your dog is meaty bones, he will eventually have some very dangerous vitamin and mineral deficiencies so if you do decide to go this route, do your research. Find a breed appropriate diet or even better find a veterinary nutritionist to help you create a well-balanced, breed and life stage appropriate diet for your four-legged friend.
Finally, the third option and the one we chose to adopt for boxer/heeler mix Kai is home cooked dog food. To us, this option made most sense. It is relatively inexpensive, we know exactly what Kai is eating and he loves it! Again, as with the BARF diet, it is vitally important that we be mindful of nutritional balance so we have created a diet that includes all the daily recommended nutrients, vitamins and minerals. All of the meat is cooked so we don't have to worry about any bacteria and we also make it in batches that never last longer than a week. I have to admit, it does take some time and planning especially if you are planning on having your pal boarded but once you have a system in place it fits in nicely with you weekly meal prep. If this is the option that interests you, I believe you will be very pleased with the results. Kai is very happy, healthy energetic and has been growing normally. Our vet has been made aware of our choice when Kai was still a puppy of eight weeks and she has been following him closely to make sure he is in good health. When we tell people that we make our own dog food, the immediate reaction is usually, “Oh! You give him human food, he must be begging at your table all the time?” and honestly it was one of our concerns before we started as well. What we have found out though, is that because the food he eats is so nutritious, once he is done eating his meal he is done. Word to the wise here; because the home cooked food is very moist and not dried up and compacted, you will notice your pooch needs a lot more food. Kai is now nine months old, weighs about fifty-five pounds and he needs to eat roughly eight cups of food per day. You may also notice that your dog doesn't need as much water, this is totally normal as he/she is now getting a lot of it from the food he/she eats. Kai's diet includes meats such as chicken hearts and livers, chicken breast and thighs, stewing beef and extra lean ground beef. It also includes fruits and veggies, as well as dairy in the form of plain low-fat yogurt. We also throw in some cooked eggs, fish and powdered egg shells. If you do a bit of research, you will find tons of breed specific diets, my only advice is, find one or two recipes that you feel comfortable making and stick with them. If you try a new one every week, you run the risk of unbalancing his diet plus you will probably get discouraged very quickly. It doesn’t have to be complicated, the simpler the better you just have to keep at it and your dog will thank you for it.
Before I finish up, there is something I should mention. Dogs are omnivores which means they can eat pretty much anything right? Well, turns out there are a few things they cannot eat. Here is a list of things you should never feed your dog:
Chocolate, Coffee, tea, other caffeine
Grapes and raisins
Onions and Garlic
For a more complete list visit www.peteducation.com and read the article titled Foods to avoid feeding your dog.
I truly hope that I was able to shed some light on this conundrum. People have domesticated dogs for thousands of years yet we have only seen commercial pet foods for the last hundred years or so. I truly believe that my dog is happier and healthier because of what he eats. If you are having any sort of digestive issues with your pet, I would recommend you try an alternative to commercial foods. There is something to be said for knowing exactly what your pets eat and being able to adjust one ingredient at a time if he develops any intolerance or allergies.
If you have had any similar experiences or are just embarking on the path of dog ownership, leave a comment or ask a question. We read them all and try to answer as quickly as possible.